Disc protrusion, also referred to by doctors as a herniated disc, is a problem with one of the discs that cushion the vertebrae of your spine. A protruding disc occurs when some of the jelly-like fluid in the center of the disc leaks out through a fracture in the disc’s outer hard layer. This protrusion of the jelly-like fluid can irritate your spinal cord and other nearby nerves, resulting in problems with your back.
How Can a Protruding Disc Cause Back Pain?
There are many ways in which a protruded disc can cause you to experience back pain. When you bend to lift a heavy object and use the muscles of your back rather than the muscles in your legs, one of the discs in your spine can protrude out of place as it cannot withstand the pressure. Turning your back while lifting an object can also cause a disc to protrude. As you get older, regular activities cause wear and tear on the discs of your spine, making it easier for the jelly-like material inside to leak through areas of the disc that are worn down.
Once the jelly-like material has escaped from the center of the disc where it belongs, it fills some of the space that the disc needs to cushion the vertebrae. This puts a great deal of pressure on your spine, irritating the nerves that service your lower back as well as your arms or legs. This nerve irritation manifests itself as spasms of pain as well as sensations of numbness, tingling, and burning in your back. You might also experience weakness in your back. This can cause you to experience pain when laying on your back or trying to lift something, due to the irritation and inflammation of your nerves.
Diagnosing a Protruded Disc
Most of the time, your doctor can diagnose a protruding disc simply by taking a medical history of your symptoms and recent activities and by conducting a physical examination. Your doctor may ask you to perform a series of movements as he watches to evaluate your range of movement and observes your discomfort level. In some cases, your doctor may request imaging studies or nerve tests to diagnose the extent of the damage to your disc. These studies include:
- X-rays to rule out a fractured vertebra, infection or tumor
- Computerized tomography (CT) scan to determine the extent of the protrusion of jelly-like material from your disc
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to visualize which disc is affected and which nerves are causing the pain in your back
- Myelogram, in which your doctor injects a special fluid containing dye which shows up on an x-ray and identifies which nerves and areas of your spinal cord are experiencing increased pressure
- Electromyograms to determine which of your nerves are damaged
How is a Protruding Disc Treated?
Most of the time, the back pain caused by your protruded disc can be treated with conservative treatments such as pain relief medications along with a specific exercise regimen or physical therapy. If over the counter pain relievers are ineffective, your doctor may prescribe narcotic pain relievers, muscle relaxers, nerve pain medication or cortisone injections into the affected area of your spine. Heat or ice packs, short term traction or bracing of your back, or stimulation through ultrasound or electrical impulses are also used to treat pain from a protruded disc. If conservative treatments fail, or if your symptoms worsen and you are unable to do even basic activities such as walking, getting dressed or climbing the stairs in your home, your doctor may suggest surgical treatment to relieve your pain.
To learn more about protruded discs and their symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment, talk to your doctor about disc protrusion to see if it could be the cause of your back pain. He will be able to help you diagnose your symptoms and determine a treatment plan to get you back to your regular activities.